— Once thought to be an unstoppable force, USC is on its way to falling off the college football map.
Trojan fans ought to get used to being unranked. It’ll be a while before USC returns to Top 25 status.
Lightning rod Lane Kiffin will catch most of the heat, but in truth the slide began well before he assumed the reins. Pete Carroll was the one who gave USC its nearly decade-long return to glory, but he also greased the slippery slope.
Carroll didn’t have the finishing kick required to ink key committed recruits following the 2008 season, namely linebackers Manti Te’o and Vontaze Burfict, who are now sophomore superstars at Notre Dame and Arizona State, respectively.
But even without cornerstone difference makers, defense is generally about the “want to” of the players and “know how” of the coaches. USC displayed little of either in Saturday night’s deflating 32-31 loss to Washington at the Coliseum.
The Trojans wilted against the one-man band of Husky quarterback Jake Locker, who racked up 420 total yards (310 through the air and 110 on the ground) and was at his best in the clutch.
That made it two in a row for the Huskies over the Trojans. But from USC’s perspective, Washington’s shocking upset last season was less egregious. That 16-13 earthquake took place in Seattle and the Huskies benefited greatly from a predictably overconfident Trojan squad that strutted into Husky Stadium with a No. 3 ranking, about to face a team that had just broken a 15-game losing streak.
This latest debacle came after calls for revenge rained down on the L.A. campus all week. There was no excuse. Aside from tailback Allen Bradford’s bullish tour de force (223 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries), USC was limp in every phase of the game.
Steve Sarkisian’s purple visor even beat up Kiffin’s white one.
Kiffin, who tried in vain to explain his team’s lackluster September performances versus lightweight competition (Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State) by saying he approached those games as an NFL preseason, is now 0-1 against legitimate opposition. And 0-2 is coming right up.
USC will visit The Farm on Saturday, facing a Stanford team that also fell from the ranks of the undefeated last week.
One defining difference between the two 4-1 squads is leadership. The Cardinal have lots of it. The Trojans have none.
Compared to Jim Harbaugh’s rigid backbone fortified by his days with the Michigan Wolverines and Chicago Bears, Kiffin is a Fresno State noodle.
Furthermore, Andrew Luck’s command of the blue-collar Stanford offense is vastly ahead of Matt Barkley’s unconfident approach. In trying to explain costly fourth-quarter misfires against the Huskies, the first sophomore captain in USC history said: “I was too focused on not throwing interceptions on those clutch drives.”
That’s not how you win on offense, but USC is currently most deficient defensively.
After facing five undistinguished opponents, USC currently ranks 116th in the nation in pass defense (288 yards allowed per game), 99th in total defense (419) and is tied for 64th in scoring defense (24 points allowed per game).
If Kiffin’s father, Monte, is a genius, the new Trojan defensive coordinator has yet to show it. With seven more games against high-flying Pac-10 competition and a date with Notre Dame still on the slate, there’s still time for him to earn his reported $2 million salary, but don’t hold your breath.
One has to assume that Carroll, now the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, saw all this coming and had an escape plan. From a front-row seat last year, he seemed to lose more and more interest as USC limped toward the Emerald Bowl. Among last season’s four conference losses were ugly beat-downs courtesy of Oregon (47-20) and Stanford (55-21), by far the worst of Carroll’s tenure.
Cycles have always been a part of college football, but many bought into Carroll’s “Win Forever” philosophy that aimed to do just that.
His book by the same name, which was released over the summer, would have been a smashing success three years earlier.
Naturally fearful that its long run at the elite level was teetering following a 9-4 season and heavy NCAA sanctions, the majority of USC’s stubborn fan base held out hope that Kiffin’s youth and brash nature was a good fit for the wounded program and he would defiantly win in a “us against the world” fashion.
He is not suited for such a role, and is far from a wunderkind. Kiffin, an above average offensive coordinator, is years away from being who he thinks he is ... if ever. Al Davis, Tennessee and USC should have known better.
But while Kiffin obviously lacks coaching success and overall polish, he knows football. Realizing the squad he inherited doesn’t have what it takes, Kiffin was busy during the summer laying the groundwork for lower expectations to soften the blow when the pipe dream of a 13-0 season inevitably blew up.
Now that it’s happened a week too soon, he’ll place more blame on the albatross of NCAA sanctions, which have had a limited impact thus far. That has some merit, but he’s not the best man to guide the Trojans through the muck.
While its difficult to say who would be a proper caretaker, it’s painfully clear that the only similarity Kiffin has with Nick Saban, Mack Brown, Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops is the inexplicably high salary he “earns.”
USC’s saving grace could be Kiffin’s proven ability as a recruiter, especially with right-hand man Ed Orgeron doing the heavy lifting. But they certainly have their work cut out for them.
Who wants to play for USC now?
In addition to concerning themselves with Bowl Championship Series rankings and “College GameDay” visits, five-star recruits of this era all assume that they’ll be starters when they first set foot on campus.
Ironically, it was Carroll, who gave birth to the national trend of regularly giving true freshmen playing time right off the bat, putting them in the spotlight and trumpeting that practice while on the recruiting trail.
With brutal scholarship limitations on the way and the sexiness of USC replaced by ominous clouds, Kiffin can’t be expected to win many tug-of-war battles against Oregon’s ultra dynamic program, Stanford’s old school appeal and Washington’s upward trend.
He isn’t the only one who has had success in the homes of California’s premier prep stars. Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson, Mike Stoops, Jeff Tedford and Rick Neuheisel have also signed their fair share of the top talent.
Even the “Pac-12” newcomers Utah and Colorado will give USC a run for the money in its backyard. Kyle Whittingham has built a solid alternative in Salt Lake City and Dan Hawkins’ eventual replacement in Boulder will have the luxury of offering the largest number of early opportunities south of Pullman.
USC’s biggest calling card also has lost its luster.
Once an absolute fortress, the Coliseum was home to 35 consecutive USC victories and its sidelines always would be bursting at the seams with bluechippers eager to join the excitement.
But after losing only one of 48 games at home, USC has now dropped three of it last four at the Coliseum against teams that recruit heavily in southern California, unwittingly helping hungry visitors in that regard.
No. 9 Arizona and No. 16 Stanford certainly parlayed last season’s victorious visits to L.A. well so far.
The California Golden Bears (Oct. 16) are the Coliseum’s next guests with designs on taking their bite out of the Trojans.
And then, No. 3 Oregon (Oct. 30) pays a visit to solidify its place as the new “USC” on the college football map.